On August 6th, 2015, PiBalloonIII was launched from the Trinity Valley Community College in Terrell, TX. Launch took place at approximately 11:15AM. The balloon drifted south, towards Athens, and then cut west for a burst near Ennis. Burst happened at ~2:33PM, and the payloads were on the ground shortly thereafter.
Space Dorothy was two draw-string bags filled with ~150 ping pong balls. A 5″ foil tail was attached to each ping pong ball to help with reflectivity. The bags were mounted above the parachute, so they would be turned up-side-down when the balloon burst.
This map shows the launch from Terrell, the burst point, landing site (final K5UTD-11 position), and the debris field based on local area reports. Several residents called after seeing my phone number written on the side of ping pong balls.
This album shows the differential reflectivity between horizontal and vertical polarization on weather radar. At the 1.5° tilt, the altitude was approximately 8kft. At the 2.5°, 3.6° and 4.5° tilts, the approximate altitudes of the beam were 12kft, 17kft, and 21kft respectively.
As you can see, there is a cluster of debris that intersects the expected flight path of the ping pong balls shortly after burst. Because the ping pong balls have little mass and a foil tail, they took much longer to descend than the primary payloads.
Despite original looks at the radar being inconclusive, a further analysis of the Level 2 data proved to be quite useful. The filtering on the WSR-88D most likely filtered out most of the ping pong balls on the Base Reflectivity and Base Velocity products, but the Differential Reflectivity appears to have far less filtering, allowing these reflections to be seen. Apparently 152 ping pong balls can actually appear on weather radar.
These images were rendered with GR2Analyst. The data was pulled from KFWS on 8/6/2015 between 1900 and 2030 UTC.
On Thursday, August 6, we will be launching a student payload, PiBalloonIII, and Space Dorothy. This launch is part of a STEM outreach camp.
We plan on dumping 152 ping-pong balls from the edge of space. Each ball will be labeled with “REWARD!” and my phone number. In addition, the ping-pong balls will have a small hole, and a foil tail. There’s a decent chance that the ping-pong balls will reflect weather radar. Space Dorothy is being assembled by the students.
There will be two radio payloads on this launch, PiBalloonIII and the student box.
We will try and launch from the Trinity Valley Community College in Terrell at about 10:15AM. Wide area communications will be on the Flamethrower (146.7- pl110.9/441.925+ pl110.9). The simplex chase frequency is 446.1.
PiBalloon III (on the PHAB-11 string) had a successful flight on Saturday, July 11. Launch was at 9:30AM from Bonham High School, and landing was at 12:23 in Sherman. The balloon narrowly missed a populated area, and some high-tension power lines. The average descent rate was 3500ft/min. Conversely, the ascent rate was 675ft/min.
The balloon launching went off without a problem. We laid the balloon out, and connected it to the hydrogen tank, but waited for PiBalloonIII to be fully operational before filling began. Once the crossband repeater, SSTV, and APRS were all verified, we inflated the balloon. When the balloon was filled, we rigged the payloads, and walked it over to the field. The PARK Balloon group uses a method called a tethered launch, where a rope is fed through the ring on the balloon. This allows a final check on all of the payloads to be run before the balloon is let go. When we’re ready for launch, one end of the rope is let go, and it slowly feeds through the ring allowing a jolt-free release.
All systems functioned as intended, with the exception of one experimental tracker (W5ADC-7). Based on the data received over the APRS network, the GPS was not in “high altitude mode,” and capped out around 40,000ft. The other two trackers (KE5GDB-11 and W5ADC-11) functioned exactly as intended.
The crossband repeater sustained a lot of traffic! There were about a dozen check-ins, and a constant chatter about the balloon.
The slow-scan TV package sent amazing photos from the edge of space.
Pi Camera Photos
Watching the Balloon Come Down
One of the coolest parts about this flight was that we nearly intercepted it on the descent. Landon (N5AET) and I were able to see the balloon come down. I was able to take the video recorded from the balloon and locate my vehicle (or maybe the one just in front of us).
(BEWARE: Clenching may occur as power lines become visible!)
How it looked from the chase vehicle (taken about 10 seconds later):
This was a fantastic launch with great results. The pictures were amazing; both the real-time SSTV and the ones pulled from the SD card later on. We had a little fun with the SSTV when the balloon was in “descent mode,” and will probably continue the tradition. It was a pleasure to launch with the PARK Balloon group, and I’m very thankful for the opportunity.
The launch took place earlier than scheduled; at 0932L the balloon was released in some moderate winds from Forney High School. Everything ran ahead of schedule, we arrived at the high school early, the students from DeSoto and Lancaster arrived early, and subsequently the balloon was launched early.
All pre-flight checks went OK. Everything was beaconing properly, APRS data looked good, and the crossband repeater was repeating. There were five payloads that seemed to be functional: Primary Tracking, Telemetry, Secondary Tracking, Slow-Scan Television (SSTV), and the Crossband Repeater.
Once the rigging was complete, the students huddled in a corner and began inflating the balloon. It took nearly all 21 students with their hands in the air to prevent the balloon from making contact with the building when gusts of wind would take control of the balloon. Upon inflation, we zip-tied the payload string to the balloon, and walked it out to the practice football field. After a quick run-down of launch procedure (essentially “release slowly!”) we let the balloon up by feeding the payload string hand-over-hand. At times, the wind was so strong, the string was barely 30° above the ground.
It’s in the air!
Shortly after launch, we realized that the Pi-based tracker was not updating its position. It was sending the same packet over and over. Although not good, it does indicate that the problem was upstream of the TNC, most likely a communication issue with the GPS. Unfortunately, my code is not self-recovering from a GPS connect/disconnect issue. It can easily handle a position unlock, but if the gpsd daemon stalls, it will not recover. I imagine that there was a loose connection that caused this particular problem. Fortunately, the primary tracker functioned exactly as intended.
The telemetry looked good. At the launch site, the balloon measured a pressure of 981mb, an external temperature of just over 30°C and a relative humidity of 47.6%. Tony (W5ADC) was able to calculate the ascent rate – just over 1200ft/min, or 6m/s. With the balloon in the air, the chase began.
Tony (W5ADC), John (KC0L), and myself took off just after the balloon launched. The students loaded up, and went to a local park to play around while the flight took place. Tony, John and I stopped in Seagoville to run flight predictions, talk on the crossband repeater, and plan out our chase. After about 45 minutes of waiting, we determined it would be wise to head towards Ferris.
I made numerous contacts through the crossband repeater. In this mode, it will repeat things heard on 446.050MHz out on 147.5MHz. I talked to AF5MI in Carrolton, K5LUO near OKC, W5TXG near Palestine, and KD5OUG in Richardson. Next time I’d like to work “Balloon DX” through the repeater.
We made it to Ferris rather quickly, and kept heading south on 45. Believe it or not, bladder instinct led us to our next waiting point, a Shell/Sonic combo just outside the city of Palmer. John, Tony and I spent about twenty minutes at this location while the students were rounded up and caught up with us. The balloon peaked at 85,000 feet, and made a quick descent following the same winds that took it up.
The bus driver was kind enough to follow the chase vehicles as we weaved our way through Palmer out to some country roads. John had a slight lead, and informed us that the balloon would be very easy to access, and was nicely strewn out in a field. His assessment was correct; the balloon was 30 yards from CR813 and was waiting for us in a slightly muddy field.
The students hopped off the bus, and helped gather up the payload bits. The landing, although mostly soft, was enough to knock some batteries out of their holder on the primary tracker. The chase was completed after a trip to CiCi’s in Lancaster.
My favorite part of the launches is the data. I love seeing where the balloon can be heard, and watching the telemetry stream in through the flight. This flight had the telemetry basics covered, but not overdone: internal temperature, external temperature, pressure, and humidity. Altitude was handled by the GPS.
Flight Time: 1:48
Max Altitude: 84,486ft
Lowest Temperature: -47.9°C
Lowest Pressure: 25mb
Even though my primary tracker had failed to accomplish its primary function, it was still useful for ranging the balloon. A handful of IGates were able to directly receive packets from the balloon: N5DTX-5, K5UTD, KB5ASY-4, AF5I-1, WD5DDH-1, WB5QLD, N5HYH-5, AE5PL-10, KE5UUO, W5LHG, N8QVR-10, KC5AFM-1, W5AMZ-1, KD5UMO-1, N5YSQ, KA5WMY-10, W5NGU-4, W5ROX, KA5WMY-5. Remember, to IGate a packet, you must have a good signal from the balloon. This means >-110dBm (or so). The image below represents the areas in which the balloon was definitely heard via RF, and you probably could have talked through the crossband repeater or received SSTV images.
The temperature data is ever so slightly skewed by the color of the temperature sensor: black. As seen in the chart below, the temperature rapidly dropped on the descent and ultimately reached a minimum value of nearly 20°C less on the descent than it did on the ascent. I believe this is caused by the air rapidly moving over the sensor, giving the sun and the internal electronics less of a chance to skew the data.
Another aspect of the data to analyze is the pressure/altitude correlation. The GPS read a max altitude of 85,000 feet, and the lowest measured pressure was 25mb. Using formulas provided by NOAA, I plugged in our meager 25mb to produce a theoretical maximum altitude of 73,499 feet. It’s a good thing our altitude data came from a GPS, as the NOAA formula and our sensor produced over a 15% error between the two numbers.
The humidity data was rather boring, other than inconsistent amounts of moisture at various altitudes. I’m sure the people that paid close attention in Skywarn school would like me to make a Skew-T chart out of this data, but you’ll have to do it yourself.
All things considered, this launch was very successful. First and foremost, the students enjoyed themselves and learned a lot in the process. On the balloon, there were no catastrophic failures, as the only issue was a GPS failure on the secondary tracker. The Byonics TinyTrak4 once again proved that it is a solid piece of equipment, and that I’m not yet qualified to make flight-ready trackers myself. The GoPros did a great job, and took plenty of photos of the areas surrounding the metroplex. We couldn’t have asked for a better recovery location, and a better chase team to help find it.
Thanks to everybody that made this launch and recovery possible! It was a very enjoyable experience, and I look forward to the next one.
This launch is part of an Intro to Space camp being hosted at UT Dallas. High school students interested in STEM will be coordinating launch aspects, and assembling the primary payload. We will be launching on Wednesday, July 1st, some time before noon. The students will chose the launch site a day or two before the launch. Upper level atmospheric conditions will dictate the launch site.
The primary tracking payload will be built by the students. It will consist of a TinyTrak4, GPS, Arduino, and a handful of weather sensors. It will operate under the K5UTD-11 SSID, and beacon a position once every 15 seconds, and a telemetry packet once every 15 seconds.
The secondary tracking will be handled by a RaspberryPi and a TNC-Pi. The “signal” chain will be a USB GPS to gpsd, which is then read by a python script, and sent to the aprx daemon. The aprx daemon transmits a position every 10 seconds.
The SSTV transmitter will be driven by the RaspberryPi running the secondary tracking. The Pi will take a picture with a Pi Camera, process the .png into a .wav file, and play the audio to a radio via the soundcard. This can be run simultaneously with the APRS, as the APRS radio is controlled by the TNC-Pi, not the soundcard on the Pi.
The crossband repeater will be a Yaesu FT-530.
The payloads will be divided into three separate power groups: primary tracking, secondary tracking, and non-essentials. Primary tracking will consist of the TinyTrak4, GPS, Arduino, sensors, and a Baofeng UV-5R. Secondary tracking will be the RaspberryPi and another Baofeng UV-5R. The non-essentials will include the crossband repeater and the SSTV transmitter (you guessed it; another UV-5R!).
Each group will be powered by three or four Li-SO2 D cells. This will give us 10.8v or 14.4v to play with, at 9.2Ah.
We will use the following frequencies depending on balloon location.
8xAA Ultimate Lithium batteries (in two 4xAA configuration)
Each of the sensors listed above is interfaced to the Pi with their respective protocol. Due to the nature of the sensors, some can update very quickly, while others can take up to two seconds. The barometer can update at 53Hz, while the humidity sensor can update once every two seconds. Because of this, it’s easiest for each sensor to maintain its own log file.
The GPS feeds a program called GPSD. This program makes it very easy to cross-interface multiple types GPS units, while also providing libraries to Python. As learned on the first PiBalloon, it’s best to set the GPS in high-altitude mode. I didn’t know such a mode was needed, and at 12,000 meters, the GPS started sending garbled data. The GPS purchased has a battery, so it’s easy enough to set the configuration on the computer and it will maintain the settings.
The TI TMP513 is the coolest sensor on the payload. It will measure voltage and current, while also providing up to three external temperature sensors. Here is a snippet of the TMP513 log file:
The first column is UNIX epoch time. All log files will share this property. The second column battery voltage, followed by current (in mA). The fourth column is the onboard temperature sensor on the TMP513, then a remote internal temperature sensor and a remote external temperature sensor. The last two columns are idle current and transmit current.
As you can see, a temperature of 255.94C is very unlikely, so I’m going to write it off as RFI problems on the remote sensor. Fortunately, we have a digital sensor for the external temperature readings, with almost no chance of RFI.
The DS18B20, DHT11, and BMP180 measure temperature, humidity, and pressure respectively. I much prefer the DS18B20 to the TMP513 for temperature readings at the moment, as I don’t yet fully understand how to calibrate the 513 and minimize RF interference.
The final item on the payload list is the Dorji DRA818V. This is our 2 meter transceiver. Originally I planned to fly two of these, but after much thought and some technical difficulties, I determined that we could move a similar amount of data, with little compromise, using only one radio. The compromise made pertains to the quality of the SSTV images. Because SSTV can’t use the transmitter continuously, I opted for a 36 second Robot 36 image instead of a 5 minute Scottie DX image. The visual difference is definitely noticeable, but it’s not worth the trouble of maintaining a second transmitter.
To save time, the scripts will compile APRS packets while the SSTV image is transmitting. Theoretically, I could reduce the cycle down to about 45 seconds, but I’m going to opt to keep it at 60 seconds to give the transmitter some time to unkey and cool (ever so slightly).
Using the Energizer Ultimate Lithium Batteries, I’m able to get a predicted 4 hours of use from 8 batteries. The Pi uses about 300mA, transmitter 750mA and we lose 100mA in the voltage regulators, so we can assume 1.25A of draw at any given time. After cross referencing the datasheets, I can predict we will see at least 4 hours, if not more from a given set of batteries.
The DORJI modules (DRA818V and DRA818U units) came in yesterday. These modules are full transceivers. They are programmed via UART, don’t require a power cycle between frequencies, have a sleep mode, and can provide 500mW or 1W.
Programming these units is not exactly easy. They use 3.3v TTL levels, so your typical USB to Serial adapter won’t work, as those use RS232 levels (-12v & +12v). TTL levels are typically 0v to 5v, or 0v to 3.3v. Fortunately I intend on using these with a Raspberry Pi, so I will already have a UART (serial interface) that provides 0 and 3.3v levels.
Minicom, screen, PuTTY, and various other terminal clients were giving me a very rough time with these units. The initial handshake command is “AT+DMOCONNECT” with the carriage return and line feed characters. With the terminal programs I listed above, each character was individually sent, and I was commonly seeing “+DMOERROR” as I was trying to type out AT+DMOCONNECT. Python was the tool that finally worked.
ser = serial.Serial(‘/dev/ttyAMA0’, 9600, timeout=2)
Assuming this all ran correctly, you should see an acknowledgement from the module.
Ultimately this is very exciting, as it’s giving me a full transmitter and receiver on a platform that can be dynamically programmed from a Raspberry Pi. The dynamic frequency changing will allow me to send Slow Scan TV, then send APRS packets, kerchunk repeaters, and then do the whole process again.
In August, I built and flew a Raspberry Pi powered high altitude weather balloon. The Pi was ideal, as it provided a low power Linux platform in a credit-card sized package. Using Python, BASH, and caffeine, I was able to produce 1200 baud APRS packets to be sent through the audio jack to a Baofeng UV-3R. The Pi also took pictures using a webcam, and sent them out using Slow Scan Television (SSTV). This was sent through a Wouxun KG-UVD1 using VOX. This system worked very well, but there are plenty of design improvements to be made, so I need to start from scratch.
PiBalloon II it shall be called.
I came across a new balloon box as I was walking through a biology centric building on the UTD campus. I didn’t have a banana for reference, but I did have a Pi B+. The box (externally) is 7x7x5.5 inches, giving me the perfect amount of room for a GPS module, Raspberry Pi, 2 D cell lithium batteries, a webcam, and these Baofeng-on-a-chip modules [DRA818V is the search term, if the link dies].
The Baofeng-on-a-chip modules are programmable via UART and can transmit at 27 or 30dBm (500mW/1W). I haven’t received mine yet, but I expect China Air Mail to provide in a week or two. Because they’re programmable via UART, it is theoretically possible to send SSTV on 144.5 and APRS packets on 144.39 using the same module. Admittedly, you can’t get APRS while SSTV is running, but it still has a lot of potential. My favorite idea is to program in the top 15 repeater pairs and the top 5 PL tones, and go down the list kerchunking repeaters from the edge of space. One could also program the Pi to announce its status on their favorite repeater using a speech synthesizer. “This is your Pi speaking. Our current altitude is 82,348 feet, and ascending. It’s a little chilly outside at -37 degrees celcius. Batteries are looking good. Go ahead and put your seatbacks and tray tables in the upright and locked positions, as we expect burst at any minute now.” The possibilities are endless with a radio that can be programmed in real time by a Raspberry Pi.
Similar to the last launch, I’d like to monitor several different parameters and send them out using APRS. I plan on building another 1-wire thermal sensor network using the Maxim DS18B20’s or similar. This time I’ll be using the real sensors, not the unreliable parasitic power units. The TI ADC didn’t perform well either on the previous launch, so I’ll most likely load up an ATmega chip to handle battery voltage monitoring. Ideally I can just feed data back to the Pi using a UART or other GPIO interface.
TI offers this chip called the TMP513. Check it out. It interfaces using I2C, and can measure battery voltage, three temperature sensors (and a fourth internal sensor), and even has a GPIO pin. Mouser has them in stock for <$5. If I can figure out how to use this chip, I’ll swap out the 1-wire network and the ATmega in favor of this. It has potential.
There is a possibility of a December launch. This group requests that the payloads be <2lbs and <12″ on any face. Size isn’t a problem, but weight might be. Hopefully the PiBalloon II will come out under that constraint.
On Sunday, August 17th, 2014 we launched a 600g Totex balloon with a homebrew APRS tracker, and recovered the payload just 5 miles from the launch site.
Around 8:30AM on Sunday August 17th, it was pouring outside of my apartment in Richardson. Weather radar showed a decent amount of storm cells moving in a west-to-east fashion across the entire metroplex. By 11:30 the majority of the cells were to be out of the area, but we expected heavy cloud cover and a light sprinkle. As you can see in the photos above, heavy cloud cover and a light sprinkle were provided.
At the launch site, we plugged in the batteries, tested the various systems, and deemed the payload OK to launch. SSTV images were streaming in, and APRS packets were being relayed by the TinyTrak4 in the chase Jeep. The balloon-filling team used an entire size-K tank of helium (200cu ft.) to gain ~11.87 lbs of lift (~13.2lbs – 600 grams of balloon). Our box only weighs 6lbs, so we had roughly 5.9lbs of free lift with the payload attached. Using the APRS data, I was able to determine that our average rate of ascent was ~1417feet/min (7.2m/s).
[Note on calculations: Using the Slope function in Excel, it told me the average rate of change between packets was 1063 feet. Because we were beaconing at a 45 sec interval (.75min), 1063/.75 = 1417 feet/min. This is hella fast.]
Once we had liftoff, we decided it was time to grab a quick lunch, and prepare for the chase. A local Sonic was able to grab our business. When the balloon reached around 40,000 feet, we noticed that the position packets stopped updating, but the telemetry indicated that things kept getting cooler. After some quick research, we determined that our GPS was soft-limited to 40,000 feet, despite the spec sheet stating 50km. [More research and discussion with the South Texas Balloon Launch Team indicated that a certain serial string must be sent to the GPS to enable high altitude mode; furthering the educational factor of this launch].
After about twenty minutes of munching, the telemetry data indicated a quick drop in temperature. This can only mean one thing – burst. Admittedly, we didn’t know which way to head, as the APRS data was not yet providing accurate position packets. As we were driving towards the predicted landing site, the balloon dropped below the 40k foot GPS ceiling, and started providing us with accurate position data. The packets kept streaming in, altitude getting lower each time. Finally, we stopped getting packets. The last packet indicated the balloon was a quarter mile from 121, not far from where we performed several “legal” U-turns. Lo and behold, one of the chase Jeep passengers spotted an orange box in a muddy field. It was exactly a quarter mile from highway 121. The landing site was approximately 5 miles from the launch site.
There were several learning experiences with this launch.
Don’t fly DB9 connectors. They will come disconnected, and you will have a bad day.
Unlock the GPS. Just do it.
Buy the right batteries. Lithium Thionyl Chloride cells are BAD. They have a high internal impedance, yielding a much lower current draw. Lithium Sulfur Dioxide (LiSO2) are the correct choice. I compensated for the 200ma max draw on the batteries we had by doubling up, giving me the 400ma required by the Pi.
Wide angle lenses take cooler photos of landscapes. The Canon SX110IS does not have a wide angle lens. There was potential for cooler photos.
Use switching voltage regulators. Linear regulators will dump a ton of energy in the form of heat. Tons of weight can be saved by flying less batteries when the right regulators are flown.
That sums it up pretty well. Enjoy some photos of our activities: